Reviewed December 2019
Claire Payne, Web Services and Data Librarian
Stony Brook University
Vetusta Monumenta is a critical digital edition of a print series originally published by the Society of Antiquaries of London between 1718 and 1906. Translated literally, the prints depict "ancient monuments." Over the nearly 200-year life of the series, however, a wide variety of historically significant objects, buildings, and artworks were depicted. Like the original series, this new edition required the technical and scholarly participation of many contributors: it includes a significant body of new scholarship about the prints from academics across Europe and North America. The project was funded in large part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and built using the open-source Scalar platform. The original Vetusta Monumenta series consisted of seven bound volumes that collected what were initially individually distributed engravings; this digital edition focuses on the first three volumes, published pre-1800. While as of this writing only Volume One is fully available, the website promises the other two in 2020.
The major achievement of this project is the rich visual and textual detail provided about each engraving or series of engravings. For each object highlighted in the print volume, this edition includes ultra-high-quality DZI images that are easily zoomed and manipulated using the built-in image viewer, as well as captioned JPEGs. Accompanying these images are thorough descriptions of the plate(s) as well as the object represented. Impressively, all text engraved on the plate has been fully transcribed and, where necessary, translated into English; translations are also provided for any original print essays that accompanied the core image engravings. These transcription and translation efforts are especially meaningful in the several cases where the reader can explore them interactively overlaid on the JPEG image. Finally, each engraving or set is accompanied by a new peer-reviewed critical article that provides an analytical examination of the context and contents of the artwork. Usefully, all text—including translations and articles—is fully searchable, though the search tool at the top of each page defaults to searching only the title and plate description.
Scalar is a fitting medium for this endeavor. From a basic technical perspective, the project is responsive and has a crisp interface. The platform also inherently allows for continued growth: the commenting tool included on every page has the potential to foster ongoing productive scholarly conversations. In contrast to its clean facade and technical affordances, however, the most noticeable shortcoming of this edition is its counterintuitive navigational structure. While it is relatively simple to find and explore individual digitized engravings from the home page or the top menu of the site, a frustrating amount of back-and-forth clicking is required to navigate between them. Other elements of the edition—valuable thematic essays, biographical notes, and an expansive introduction—cannot be directly accessed from the top menu at all. Further, as the user explores the top menu, it is possible to stumble across pages in the site infrastructure that do not appear ready for publication. In order to efficiently make use of the excellent resources and new scholarship contained within the project, a reader needs either previous knowledge of Scalar or a commitment to reading the lengthy documentation on "Features of this Edition". One other technical issue compounds this problem and bears mentioning: as the project does not meet several digital accessibility standards, assistive technology users may experience further frustration while navigating the site.
Though Vetusta Monumenta had been previously digitized, the open access critical treatment the prints receive in this edition significantly augments earlier work. Despite some technical hiccups, this edition should be of great interest and utility to scholars and students of eighteenth-century material culture, history, art history, and historiography. The project is also a valuable model for others interested in creating substantive digital humanities projects in Scalar.